Coordinated wing-waving in bees

January 16, 2020 • 2:30 pm

The tweet at the bottom got me looking for longer videos of this mesmerizing behavior, and I found one (from BBC Earth) on YouTube. The coordinated wing displays are said to deter predators, and I can’t think of any other reason for it, but I wondered if it there really were data showing that it has this effect.  This PLOS One paper, however, shows that the shimmering effect of coordinated wing-waving really does deter wasps from picking honeybees out of the mass on the nest.

Another problem is how the bees manage to synchronize their movements so rapidly. In birds like starlings, which also move and change direction rapidly in similar “waves” during their murmutations, it’s been shown that this movement requires each bird to pay attention to and emulate the movements of six or seven neighboring birds. (Following one neighbor won’t enable such rapid changes.) I’ve put a video of a starling murmuration below.

Regardless, it’s a stunning and unexpected behavior.

I describe other ways that Asian honeybees combat giant predatory wasps at the beginning of the “natural selection” chapter in Why Evolution is True. 

The tweet was found by Matthew:

Check out the coordinated movements of this flock of starlings in a murmuration:

23 thoughts on “Coordinated wing-waving in bees

  1. I read a fascinating report on how birds (Starlings, in this case) accomplish those coordinated movements, or murmuration. Some clever folks with good computers tracked the flight paths of individual murmurating (is that word?) Starlings and found that they accomplish flock-wide, almost instantaneous movement by constantly maintaining the distances between themselves and up to seven other birds closest to them. Essentially, it’s a dynamic Starling network. Since all the birds are keeping a constant distance to their neighbors, sudden changes in the distance between any two birds is (almost) instantly transmitted through the network of Starlings.

    This is probably old news to the folks here, but I only recently read it. I’ll see if I can track it down.

      1. OMG. I was reading this on my phone and played the vids because I couldn’t see the text.

        Sorry. I’ll leave now.

          1. Yes, I suspect that the proportion of the usage of “phones” that actually involves making calls nowadays is very low.

  2. Another problem is how the bees manage to synchronize their movements so rapidly.

    As long as bees can sense pressure waves or ‘hear’ I don’t see much mystery in this. Get a bunch of people together. Tell them all to clap. It won’t take long for them all to synch up, even absent any intention or desire to do so. It’s actually pretty hard and takes conscious effort not to synch up.

      1. Near-neighbor synching would be consistent with a short-range type of detection. I bet if you had a really long linear set of bleachers (several hundred feet at least), where there’s not echo contributing, you’d see the same thing with human clapping.

        1. Reminds me of when we used to do the wave at the old circular Atlanta stadium, or the chop and chant.
          Copying and coordinating behavior, group dancing, singing, chanting is very comforting and enjoyable.

  3. I recently heard on BBC Radio 4’s The Unbelievable Truth that carpenter bees can beat their wings at a frequency that causes some flowers to release pollen. (Disappointingly, middle C and not B!) Since the bees are after nectar, I’m not entirely sure what is in it for them, but it appears to be true, even if National Geographic is not what it once was:

    1. “…Since bees are after nectar…”
      A bee is ‘after’ both nectar and pollen. Nectar for carbs, pollen for protein. They need both. Buzz pollination is a real thing, probably having evolved among a few flower species to assure that the mutualistic pollinator stays true to the species so pollen is not wasted on a flower where it wouldn’t be viable.

    2. Pollen is protein. They gather that too, along with nectar. Their trick is to vibrate their bodies to lift a cloud of pollen around them, and some of it settles and clings onto their furry bodies. Then they rake it to ‘pollen baskets’ on their hind legs. I suppose it works out to be a bit easier for them doing it this way.

    1. I know bumblebee bees have a drowsy time when the weather is quite cool. I’ve found them sitting on flowers and can even touch them. They don’t move but when the day warms up they’re gone.

  4. I kept honeybees for many years, spent many hours squatting beside my hives watching their activities. To my eye there’s a connection between this wild bee behavior and the wing flapping my bees would do during the summer to draw air into the hive. It starts with dozens and escalates to hundreds and sometimes thousands of bees flapping their wings. Both in front of the hive entrance and inside the hive. To create a flow of air to cool the colony and dry their honey. They know what % of water will make the honey safe for long-term storage vs what will cause it to spoil.

    It amazed me the degree of coordination involved, how each particular bee chooses to flap it’s wings where to create the right amount of air flow. My thought was that the bees could feel the air flow with their sensitive hairs, the wild bees may use a similar method to coordinate their predator deterrence.

    It’s important for the bees to display to the wasps that they’re a strong coordinated healthy colony. My honeybees would display on the landing board, both for predatory wasps and other honeybees that would come to raid the colony. When my queen got old and wasn’t laying properly or the colony was collapsing the system would break down. Fewer guard bees stomping around the landing board and only a few bees fanning.(and probably not accomplishing much) I believe the pheromones the queen gives off become weaker, besides there being less bees they act more as individuals and less synchronized.

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